Iraq: War of imagination

The U.S. disaster in Iraq was created by seemingly competent officials blinded by ideological hubris. With mounting American and Iraqi deaths, will reality-based policy finally prevail?

Published November 24, 2006 11:50AM (EST)

"Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end." -- George F. Kennan, September 26, 2002

"I ask you, sir, what is the American army doing inside Iraq? ... Saddam's story has been finished for close to three years." -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes," August 13, 2006

In the ruined city of Fallujah, its pale tan buildings pulverized by Marine artillery in the two great assaults of this long war (the aborted attack of March 2004 and then the bloody, triumphant al-Fajr (The Dawn) campaign of the following November), behind the lines of giant sandbags and concrete T-walls and barbed wire that surrounded the tiny beleaguered American outpost there, I sat in my body armor and Kevlar helmet and thought of George F. Kennan. Not the grand old man of American diplomacy, the ninety-eight-year-old Father of Containment who, listening to the war drums beat from a Washington nursing home in the fall of 2002, had uttered the prophetic words above. I was thinking of an earlier Kennan, the brilliant and ambitious young diplomat who during the late 1920s and 1930s had gazed out on the crumbling European order from Tallinn and Berlin and Prague and read the signs of the coming world conflict.

For there in the bunkered Civil-Military Operations Center (known as the C-Moc) in downtown Fallujah, where a few score Marines and a handful of civilians subsisted in a broken-down bunkered building without running water or fresh food, I met young Kennan's reincarnation in the person of a junior State Department official: a bright, aggressive young man who spent his twenty-hour days rumbling down the ruined streets in body armor and helmet with his reluctant Marine escorts, meeting with local Iraqi officials, and writing tart cables back to Baghdad or Washington telling his bosses the truth of what was happening on the ground, however reluctant they might be to hear it. This young diplomat was resourceful and brilliant and indefatigable, and as I watched him joking and arguing with the local sheikhs and politicos and technocrats -- who were meeting, as they were forced to do, in the American bunker -- I thought of the indomitable young Kennan of the interwar years, and of how, if the American effort in Iraq could ever be made to "work," only undaunted and farseeing young men like this one, his spiritual successor, could make it happen.

This was October 2005, on the eve of the nationwide referendum on Iraq's proposed constitution, and I had come to Fallujah, the heart of rebellious Anbar province, to see whether the Sunnis could gather the political strength to vote it down. In a provision originally insisted on by the Kurds, a provision that typified an American-designed political process that had been intended to unify the country but that instead had helped pull it inexorably apart, the proposed constitution could be rejected if, in three of Iraq's eighteen provinces, more than two in three Iraqis coming to the polls voted no. During the first post-Saddam election the previous January, the televised extravaganza of "waving purple fingers" which had become perhaps the most celebrated of the many promised "turning points" of this long war, the Sunnis had boycotted the polls. This time, after Herculean efforts of persuasion and negotiation by the American ambassador, most Sunnis were expected to vote. What would draw them, though -- or such anyway was the common wisdom -- was the chance not to affirm the constitution but to doom it, and the political process along with it. And so as I sat after midnight on the eve of the vote, scribbling in my notebook in the dimly lit C-Moc bunker as the young diplomat explained to me the intricacies of the politics of the battered city, I was pleased to see him suddenly lean forward and, with quick glances to either side, offer me a confidence. "You know, tomorrow you are going to be surprised," he told me, speaking softly. "Everybody is going to be surprised. People here are not only going to vote. People here -- a great many people here -- are going to vote yes."

I was stunned. That the Sunnis would actually come out to support the constitution would be an astonishing turnabout and, for the American effort in Iraq, an enormously positive one; for it would mean that despite the escalating violence on the ground, especially here in Anbar, Iraq was in fact moving toward a rough political consensus. It would mean that beneath the bloody landscape of suicide bombings and assassinations and roadside bombs a common idea about politics and compromise was taking shape. It would mean that what had come to seem a misbegotten political process that charted and even worsened the growing divisions among Iraqis had actually become the avenue for bringing them together. It would mean there might be hope.

I took the young diplomat's words as an invaluable bit of inside wisdom from the American who knew this ground better than any other, and I kept them in mind a few hours later as I traveled from polling place to polling place in that city of rubble, listening as the Fallujans told me of their anger at the Americans and the "Iranians" (as they called the leading Shiite politicians) and of their hatred for the constitution that they believed was meant to divide and thus destroy Iraq. I pondered the diplomat's words that evening, when I realized that in a long day of interviews I'd not met a single Iraqi who would admit to voting for the constitution. And I thought of his words again several days later when it was confirmed that in Anbar province -- where the most knowledgeable, experienced, indefatigable American had confided to me what he had plainly ardently believed, that on the critical vote on the constitution "a great many people would vote yes" -- that in Anbar ninety-seven out of every hundred Iraqis who voted had voted no. With all his contacts and commitment, with all his energy and brilliance, on the most basic and critical issue of politics on the ground he had been entirely, catastrophically wrong.


"You know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end."

The ninety-eight-year-old George F. Kennan, sitting in the Washington nursing home as the war came on, knew from eight decades of experience to focus first of all on the problem of what we know and what we don't know. You know, though you spend your endless, frustrating days speaking to Iraqis, lobbying them, arguing with them, that in a country torn by a brutal and complicated war those Iraqis perforce are drawn from a small and special subset of the population: Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives by meeting with and talking to Americans. Which is to say, very often, Iraqis who depend on the Americans not only for their livelihoods but for their survival.

You know that the information these Iraqis draw on is similarly limited, and that what they convey is itself selected, to a greater or lesser extent, to please their interlocutor. But though you know that much of your information comes from a thin, inherently biased slice of Iraqi politics and Iraqi life, hundreds of conversations during those grueling twenty-hour days eventually lead you to think, must lead you to think, that you are coming to understand what's happening in this immensely complicated, violent place. You come to believe you know. And so often, even about the largest things, you do not know.

As this precious stream of flickering knowledge travels "up the chain" from those on the shell-pocked, dangerous ground collecting it to those in Washington offices ultimately making decisions based upon it, the problem of what we really know intensifies, acquiring a fierce complexity. Policymakers, peering second-, third-, fourth-hand into a twilight world, must learn a patient, humble skepticism. Or else, confronted with an ambiguous reality they do not like, they turn away, ignoring the shadowy, shifting landscape and forcing their eyes stubbornly toward their own ideological light. Unable to find clarity, they impose it. Consider, for example, these words of Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking about the Iraq war on November 9, two days after the election and the day after President Bush fired him:

"It is very clear that the major combat operations were an enormous success. It's clear that in Phase Two of this, it has not been going well enough or fast enough."

Such analyses are not uncommon from Pentagon civilians; thus Dov Zakheim, a former Rumsfeld aide, to a television interviewer later that evening:

"People will debate the second part, the second phase of what happened in Iraq. Very few are arguing that the military victory in the first phase was anything but an outright success."

Three years and eight months after the Iraq war began, the secretary of defense and his allies see in Iraq not one war but two. One is the Real Iraq War -- the "outright success" that only very few would deny, the war in which American forces were "greeted as liberators," according to the famous prediction of Dick Cheney which the Vice President doggedly insists was in fact proved true: "true within the context of the battle against the Saddam Hussein regime and his forces. That went very quickly."

It is "within this context" that the former secretary of defense and the Vice President see America's current war in Iraq as in fact comprising a brief, dramatic, and "enormously successful" war of a few weeks' duration leading to a decisive victory, and then...what? Well, whatever we are in now: a Phase Two, a "postwar phase" (as Bob Woodward sometimes calls it) which has lasted three and a half years and continues. In the first, successful, Real Iraq War, 140 Americans died. In the postwar phase 2,700 Americans have died -- and counting. What is happening now in Iraq is not in fact a war at all but a phase, a non-war, something unnamed, unconceptualized -- unplanned.

Anyone seeking to understand what has become the central conundrum of the Iraq war -- how it is that so many highly accomplished, experienced, and intelligent officials came together to make such monumental, consequential, and, above all, obvious mistakes, mistakes that much of the government knew very well at the time were mistakes -- must see beyond what seems to be a simple rhetoric of self-justification and follow it where it leads: toward the War of Imagination that senior officials decided to fight in the spring and summer of 2002 and to whose image they clung long after reality had taken a sharply separate turn.

In that War of Imagination victory was to be decisive, overwhelming, evincing a terrible power -- enough to wipe out the disgrace of September 11 and remake the threatening world. In "State of Denial," Woodward recounts how Michael Gerson, at the time Bush's chief speechwriter, asked Henry Kissinger why he had supported the Iraq war:

"Because Afghanistan wasn't enough," Kissinger answered. In the conflict with radical Islam, he said, they want to humiliate us. "And we need to humiliate them." The American response to 9/11 had essentially to be more than proportionate -- on a larger scale than simply invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. Something else was essential. The Iraq war was essential to send a larger message, "in order to make a point that we're not going to live in this world that they want for us."

Though to anyone familiar with Kissinger's "realist" rhetoric of power and credibility his analysis will come as no surprise, Gerson, the deeply religious idealist who composed Bush's most soaring music about "ending tyranny" and "ridding the world of evil," seems mildly disappointed: Kissinger "viewed Iraq purely in the context of power politics. It was not idealism. He didn't seem to connect with Bush's goal of promoting democracy."

Gerson, of course, was author of what would come to be called the Bush Doctrine, a neoconservative paean to democracy that maintains that "the realistic interests of America would now be served by fidelity to American ideals, especially democracy." Others in the administration, however, plainly did "connect" with Kissinger's stark realism: Donald Rumsfeld, for example, who Ron Suskind depicts, in "The One Percent Doctrine," struggling with other officials in spring 2002 to cope with various terrifying warnings of impending attacks on the United States:

"All these reports helped fuel Rumsfeld's sense of futility as to America's ability to stop the spread of destructive weapons and keep them from terrorists. That futility was the fuel that drove the plans to invade Iraq ... as soon as possible.

"Cheney's ideas about how 'our reaction' would shape behavior -- whatever the evidence showed -- were expressed in an off-the-record meeting Rumsfeld had with NATO defense chiefs in Brussels on June 6. According to an outline for his speech, the secretary told those assembled that 'absolute proof cannot be a precondition for action.'

"The primary impetus for invading Iraq, according to those attending NSC briefings on the Gulf in this period, was to make an example of Hussein, to create a demonstration model to guide the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the United States."

In the great, multicolored braid of reasons and justifications leading to the Iraq war one might call this "the realist strand," and though the shape of the reasoning might seem to Gerson to stand as far from "democracy building" and "ending tyranny" as "power politics" does from "idealism," the distance is wholly illusory, dependent on an ideological clarity that was never present. In fact, the two chains of reasoning looped and intersected, leading inexorably to a common desire for a particular action -- confronting Saddam Hussein and Iraq -- that had been the subject of the administration's first National Security Council meeting, in January 2001, and that had been pushed to the fore again by Defense Department officials in the first "war cabinet" meeting after the September 11 attacks.

Woodward describes a report commissioned by Paul Wolfowitz, then deputy secretary of defense, intended to produce "the kinds of ideas and strategy needed to deal with a crisis of the magnitude of 9/11." After the attacks, Wolfowitz talked to his friend Christopher DeMuth, president of the American Enterprise Institute, who gathered together a group of intellectuals and academics for a series of discussions that came to be known as "Bletchley II" (after the World War II think tank of mathematicians and cryptographers set up at Bletchley Park). Out of these discussions, Woodward tells us, DeMuth drafted an influential report, entitled "Delta of Terrorism," which concluded, in the author's paraphrase, that "the United States was in for a two-generation battle with radical Islam":

"'The general analysis was that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where most of the hijackers came from, were the key, but the problems there are intractable. Iran is more important, where they were confident and successful in setting up a radical government.' But Iran was similarly difficult to envision dealing with, he said.

"But Saddam Hussein was different, weaker, more vulnerable. DeMuth said they had concluded that 'Baathism is an Arab form of fascism transplanted to Iraq' ...

"'We concluded that a confrontation with Saddam was inevitable. He was a gathering threat -- the most menacing, active and unavoidable threat. We agreed that Saddam would have to leave the scene before the problem would be addressed.' That was the only way to transform the region."

According to Woodward, this report had "a strong impact on President Bush, causing him to focus on the 'malignancy' of the Middle East" -- and the need to act to excise it, beginning with an attack on Iraq that would not only serve, in its devastating rapidity and effectiveness, as a "demonstration model" to deter anyone thinking to threaten the United States but would begin a process of "democratic transformation" that would quickly spread throughout the region. The geopolitical thinking animating this "democratic domino theory" could be plainly discerned before the war, as I wrote five months before U.S. Army tanks crossed the border into Iraq:

"Behind the notion that an American intervention will make of Iraq 'the first Arab democracy,' as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz put it, lies a project of great ambition. It envisions a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq -- secular, middle-class, urbanized, rich with oil -- that will replace the autocracy of Saudi Arabia as the key American ally in the Persian Gulf, allowing the withdrawal of United States troops from the kingdom. The presence of a victorious American Army in Iraq would then serve as a powerful boost to moderate elements in neighboring Iran, hastening that critical country's evolution away from the mullahs and toward a more moderate course. Such an evolution in Tehran would lead to a withdrawal of Iranian support for Hezbollah and other radical groups, thereby isolating Syria and reducing pressure on Israel.

"This undercutting of radicals on Israel's northern borders and within the West Bank and Gaza would spell the definitive end of Yasir Arafat and lead eventually to a favorable solution of the Arab-Israeli problem. This is a vision of great sweep and imagination: comprehensive, prophetic, evangelical. In its ambitions, it is wholly foreign to the modesty of containment, the ideology of a status-quo power that lay at the heart of American strategy for half a century. It means to remake the world, to offer to a political threat a political answer. It represents a great step on the road toward President Bush's ultimate vision of 'freedom's triumph over all its age-old foes.'"

It represented as well a breathtaking gamble, for if the victory in Iraq was to achieve what was expected -- which is to say, "humiliate" the forces of radical Islam and reestablish American prestige and credibility; serve as a "demonstration model" to ward off attacks from any rogue state that might threaten the United States, either directly or by supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorists; and transform the Middle East by sending a "democratic tsunami" cascading from Tehran to Gaza -- if the Iraq war was to achieve this, victory must be rapid, decisive, overwhelming. Only Donald Rumsfeld's transformed military -- a light, quick, lean force dependent on overwhelming firepower directed precisely by high technology and with very few "boots on the ground" -- could make this happen, or so he and his planners thought. Victory would be quick and awe-inspiring; in a few months the Americans, all but a handful of them, would be gone: only the effect of the "demonstration model," and the cascading consequences in the neighboring states, would remain. The use of devastating military power would begin the process but once begun the transformation would roll forward, carried out by forces of the same thrilling "democratic revolution" that had erupted on the streets of Prague and Budapest and East Berlin more than a decade before, and indeed on the streets of Kabul the previous year. Here was an evangelical vision of geopolitical redemption.


Thus the War of Imagination draped all the complications and contradictions of the history and politics of a war-torn, brutalized society in an ideologically driven vision of a perfect future. Small wonder that its creators, faced with grim reality, have been so loath to part with it. Since the first thrilling night of shock and awe, reported with breathless enthusiasm by the American television networks, the Iraq war has had at least two histories, that of the war itself and that of the American perception of it. As the months passed and the number of attacks in Iraq grew, the gap between those two histories opened wider and wider. And finally, for most Americans, the War of Imagination -- built of nationalistic excitement and ideological hubris and administration pronouncements about "spreading democracy" and "greetings with sweets and flowers," and then about "dead-enders" and "turning points," and finally about "staying the course" and refusing "to cut and run" -- began, under the pressure of nearly three thousand American dead and perhaps a hundred thousand or more dead Iraqis, to give way to grim reality.

The election of November 7, 2006, marks the moment when the War of Imagination decisively gave way to the war on the ground and when officials throughout the American government, not least the President himself, were forced to recognize and acknowledge a reality that much of the American public had discerned months or years before. The ideological canopy now has lifted. The study groups are at their work. Americans have come to know what they do not know. If confronted with that simple question the smiling President Ahmadinejad of Iran put to Mike Wallace last August -- "I ask you, sir, what is the American Army doing inside Iraq?" -- how many Americans could offer a clear and convincing answer?

As the war drags on and alternatives fall away and American and Iraqi deaths mount, we seem to know less and less, certainly about "where we are going to end." Thus we arrive at our present therapeutic moment -- the moment of "solutions," brought on by the recognition, three and a half years on, that we have no idea how to "end" Phase Two. This is now a matter for James A. Baker's Iraq Study Group and the military's "strategic review team" and the new Democratic committee chairmen who will offer, to a chastened president who admits he thought "we would do all right" in the elections, the "new ideas" he now professes to welcome. However quickly the discussion now moves to the geopolitical hydraulics, to weighing partition against partial withdrawal against regional conferences and contact groups and all the rest, the truth is that none of these proposals, alone or in combination, will end the war anytime soon.

It bears noticing that Kennan himself, having predicted that we will never know where we are going to end in Iraq, lived to see disproved, before his death at the age of 101 last March, what even he, no innocent, had taken as a given: that "you know where you begin." For as the war's presumed ending -- constructed from carefully crafted images of triumph, of dictators' statues cast down and presidents striding forcefully across aircraft carrier decks -- has flickered and vanished, receding into the just-out-of-grasp future ("a decision for the next president," the pre-election President Bush had said), the war's beginning has likewise melted away, the original rationale obscured in a darkening welter of shifting intelligence, ideological controversy, and conflicting claims, all of it hemmed in now on all sides by the mounting dead.


Out of this maelstrom, how does one fix now on "how we began" in Iraq? One might do worse than the National Security Presidential Directive entitled "Iraq: Goals, Objectives and Strategy," the top-secret statement of American purpose intended to guide all the departments and agencies of the government, signed by President George W. Bush on August 29, 2002:

"US goal: Free Iraq in order to eliminate Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery and associated programs, to prevent Iraq from breaking out of containment and becoming a more dangerous threat to the region and beyond.

"End Iraqi threats to its neighbors, to stop the Iraqi government's tyrannizing of its own population, to cut Iraqi links to and sponsorship of international terrorism, to maintain Iraq's unity and territorial integrity. And liberate the Iraqi people from tyranny, and assist them in creating a society based on moderation, pluralism and democracy ...

"Objectives: To conduct policy in a fashion that minimizes the chance of a WMD attack against the United States, US field forces, our allies and friends. To minimize the danger of regional instabilities. To deter Iran and Syria from helping Iraq. And to minimize disruption in international oil markets."

This secret document, disclosed by Bob Woodward, is presumably the plainest, least ideological statement of what American officials thought the country they led would be trying to achieve in the coming war. The words have now a sad and antique air, as if scrawled on yellowed parchment and decipherable only by a historian skilled in the customs and peculiarities of a far-off time and place. What can we say now, as we look at the Iraq of November 2006, about these official goals and objectives of the Iraq war?

The famous weapons of mass destruction are gone, most of them probably fifteen years gone, and their absence has likely damaged the United States and its power -- the power, deployed daily, that depends on the authority of words and pronouncements and not directly or solely on force of arms -- more severely than their presence ever could have. While no doubt convinced that Iraq had at least some chemical and biological weapons, Bush administration officials, like the cop framing a guilty man, vastly exaggerated the evidence and in so doing -- and even as they refused to allow UN inspectors to examine and weigh that evidence -- they severely undermined the credibility of the United States, the credibility of its intelligence agencies, and the support for the war and U.S. policy among Americans, among Muslims, and around the world.

The containment of Iraq, threatened only in the realm of policymakers' imaginations before the war, has been breached. The country's "threat to the region," with jihadis flowing from neighboring Sunni powers into Anbar and Baghdad and Iranian intelligence agents flowing into the Shia south, is growing daily, with the ultimate worst-case future, the confused and blackened landscape of a regional sectarian war, already standing clearly visible on the horizon as a possible consequence of an escalating conflict.

Though Saddam stands convicted of mass murder and condemned to death, and though an elected and ineffectual government deliberates within the Green Zone, it is hard to argue that the "tyrannizing" of the Iraqi population beyond its walls has not worsened. Every day on average a hundred or more Iraqis die from the violence of an increasingly complicated civil war. Sunnis attack Shia with bombs of every description -- suicide bombers and car bombs and bicycle bombs and motorcycle bombs -- and they maintain the pace of terror at an unprecedented, almost unimaginable rate. In the last six months alone Baghdad has endured 488 "terror-related bombings," an average of nearly three a day.

Shia leaders respond with death squads, whose members, drawn from party militias and often allied with the Ministry of Interior and the Iraqi police, have by now tortured and assassinated thousands of Sunnis. As Iraqis do their shopping or say their prayers they are blown to pieces by suicide bombers. As they drive through the cities in broad daylight they are pulled from their cars by armed men at roadblocks who behead them or shoot them in the back of the neck. As they sit at home at night they are kidnapped by men in police or army uniforms who load them in the trunks of their cars and carry them off to secret places to be tortured and executed, their bound and headless bodies to be found during the following days in fields or dumps or by the roadside. These bodies, examined by United Nations officials in the Baghdad morgue, "often bear signs of severe torture including acid-induced injuries and burns caused by chemical substances, missing skin, broken bones (back, hands and legs), missing eyes, missing teeth and wounds caused by power drills or nails."

As Iraqis know well, the power drills and nails were a favorite of Saddam's torturers -- though now, according to a United Nations expert on torture, "the situation is so bad many people say it is worse than it has been in the times of Saddam Hussein." The level of carnage is difficult to comprehend. According to official figures published by the United Nations, which certainly understate the case, 6,599 Iraqis were murdered in July and August alone. Estimates of the number of Iraqi civilians killed during the war range from a conservative 52,000, by the Web site Iraq Body Count, to 655,000 by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, with the Iraqi Health Minister recently announcing a cumulative total of 150,000.

As for the country's links to international terrorism, we might look to the official consensus of the American intelligence agencies issued in April 2006 that "the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives" and that "the Iraq conflict has become the 'cause celebre' for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement." The Bush administration's fears about Iraq's possible collaboration with terror groups, largely conjectural, have since Sadam's fall attained a terrible reality. Iraq's "unity and territorial integrity," meantime, has become the central issue, as the war becomes increasingly sectarian, cities and regions are "ethnically cleansed," and the Shia have pushed through a law, in the face of bitter Sunni opposition, making possible the autonomy of the South, the culmination of a political process that, beginning with the first vote boycotted by Sunnis, has served to worsen sectarian conflict.

The central question of how power and resources should be divided in Iraq and what the country should look like, a question that was going to be settled peacefully by the nascent political institutions of the "first Arab democracy," has become the critical political issue dividing Kurd from Sunni and Sunni from Shia, and also dividing the sectarian political coalitions themselves. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the leader of the "unity government," on whom President Bush repeatedly calls to "dismantle the militias," is in fact dependent for his own political survival on Moqtada al-Sadr, the creator and leader of the largest militia, the Mahdi Army. Indeed, the two most important militias are controlled by the two most powerful parties in parliament. Increasingly the "unity government" itself, quarreling vituperatively within the Green Zone, serves as an impotent echo of the savage warfare raging beyond the walls. The partitioning of Iraq is now openly advocated by many -- including such prominent American politicians as Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- desperate to find "a solution," however illusory, to the war, anything that will allow the Americans to withdraw, while avoiding any admission of defeat.


Kennan's problem of knowing "where you are going to end" begins, as he knew well, on the ground; but it does not end there. Information obtained by dedicated but deeply fallible humans travels from places like Fallujah by cable and e-mail and word of mouth into the vast four-mile-square bunker of the Green Zone, with its half-dozen concentric layers of concrete blast walls and sandbags and barbed wire, and from there to the great sprawling labyrinth of the Washington national security bureaucracy, up through the thousands of competing staffers in the layers of bureaus and agencies and eventually to the highly driven people at the tops of the organizational pyramids: the people who, it is said, "make the decisions." In the best managed of administrations there exists, between those on the ground who listen and learn and those in the offices who debate and decide, a great deal of bureaucratic "noise." And this, alas, as so many accounts of decision-making on the war make all too clear, was not the best managed of administrations. Indeed, its top officials, talented and experienced as many of them were, seem to have willingly collaborated, for reasons of ego or ambition or ideological hubris, in making themselves collectively blind.

Consider, for example, this striking but typical discussion in the White House in April 2003 just as the Iraq occupation, the vital first step in President Bush's plan "to transform the Middle East," was getting underway. American forces are in Baghdad but the capital is engulfed by a wave of looting and disorder, with General Tommy Franks's troops standing by. The man in charge of the occupation, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Jay Garner, has just arrived "in-country." Secretary of State Colin Powell has come to the Oval Office to discuss the occupation with the President, who is joined by Condoleezza Rice, then his national security adviser. Powell began, writes Woodward, by raising "the question of unity of command" in Iraq:

"There are two chains of command, Powell told the president. Garner reports to Rumsfeld and Franks reports to Rumsfeld. The president looked surprised.

"'That's not right,' Rice said. 'That's not right.'

Powell thought Rice could at times be pretty sure of herself, but he was pretty sure he was right.

"'Yes, it is,' Powell insisted.

"'Wait a minute,' Bush interrupted, taking Rice's side. 'That doesn't sound right.'

"Rice got up and went to her office to check. When she came back, Powell thought she looked a little sheepish. 'That's right,' she said."

What might Kennan, the consummate diplomatic professional, have thought of such a discussion between president, secretary of state, and national security adviser, had he lived to read of it? He would have grasped its implications instantly, as the President and his national security adviser apparently did not. Which leads to Powell's patient -- too patient -- explanation to the President:

"You have to understand that when you have two chains of command and you don't have a common superior in the theater, it means that every little half-assed fight they have out there, if they can't work it out, comes out to one place to be resolved. And that's in the Pentagon. Not in the NSC or the State Department, but in the Pentagon."

The kernel of an answer to what is the most painful and intractable question about the Iraq war -- how could U.S. officials repeatedly and consistently make such ill-advised and improbably stupid decisions, beginning with their lack of planning for "the postwar" -- can be found in this little chamber play in the Oval Office, and in the fact that at least two thirds of the cast seem wholly incapable of comprehending the script. In Woodward's account, Rice, who was then the official responsible for coordinating the national security bureaucracies of the U.S. government, found what was being said "a rather theoretical discussion," somehow managing to miss the fact that she and the National Security Council she headed had been cut out of decision-making on the Iraq war -- and cut out, further, in favor of an official, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who, if we are to believe Woodward, did not bother even to return her telephone calls.

The Iraq occupation would have all the weaknesses of two chains of command, weaknesses that would become all too apparent in a matter of days, when Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, the junior three-star in the entire Army, replaced General Franks and L. Paul Bremer replaced Garner, leaving the occupation in the hands of two officials who despised one another and hardly spoke. And both chains would end not in the White House but in the Pentagon, a vast bureaucracy not known for the delicate political touch that would be needed to carry out an occupation of this degree of complexity. We hear again the patient explanation of Powell -- whose fate in the Bush administration seems to have been to play the role of Cassandra, uttering grim prophecies destined to be ignored as reliably as they were to be proved true -- letting Woodward (but this time not the President) know of his certainty that "the Pentagon wouldn't resolve the conflicts because Wolfowitz and Feith were running their own little games and had their own agenda to promote Chalabi."

The name of Ahmad Chalabi, the brilliant, charming, cunning impresario of the Iraqi exile community, evokes memories of disasters past and, from the Pentagon point of view, of dreams dashed: the king to be who was, alas, never crowned. He is an irresistible character and has served as the off-screen villain in the telling of many an Iraq war melodrama, with particular attention to his part in helping to supply intelligence to various willing recipients within the U.S. government, bolstering the case that Iraq had significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. In fact, however, Chalabi had a much more consequential role, that of the Pentagon's ruler-to-be, the solution to that vexing question of what to do about "the postwar."

Inherent in the War of Imagination were certain rather obvious contradictions: Donald Rumsfeld's dream of a "demonstration model" war of quick, overwhelming victory did not foresee an extended occupation -- on the contrary, the defense secretary abjured, publicly and vociferously, any notion that his troops would be used for "nation-building." Rumsfeld's war envisioned rapid victory and rapid departure. Wolfowitz and the other Pentagon neoconservatives, on the other hand, imagined a "democratic transformation," a thoroughgoing social revolution that would take a Baathist Partyrun autocracy, complete with a Baathist-led army and vast domestic spying and security services, and transform it into a functioning democratic polity -- without the participation of former Baathist officials.

How to resolve this contradiction? The answer, for the Pentagon, seems to have amounted to one word: Chalabi. "When it came to Iraq," James Risen writes in "State of War," "the Pentagon believed it had the silver bullet it needed to avoid messy nation building -- a provisional government in exile, built around Chalabi, could be established and then brought in to Baghdad after the invasion."

This so-called "turnkey operation" seems to have appeared to be the perfect compromise plan: Chalabi was Shiite, as were most Iraqis, but he was also a secularist who had lived in the West for nearly fifty years and was close to many of the Pentagon civilians. Alas, there was one problem: the confirmed idealist in the White House "was adamant that the United States not be seen as putting its thumb on the scales" of the nascent Iraqi democracy. Chalabi, for all his immense popularity in the Pentagon and in the Vice President's office, would not be installed as president of Iraq. Though "Bush's commitment to democracy was laudable," as Risen observes, his awkward intervention "was not really the answer to the question of postwar planning." He goes on:

"Once Bush quashed the Pentagon's plans, the administration failed to develop any acceptable alternative ... Instead, once the Pentagon realized the president wasn't going to let them install Chalabi, the Pentagon leadership did virtually nothing. After Chalabi, there was no Plan B."

An unnamed White House official describes to Risen the Laurel-and-Hardy consequences within the government of the President's attachment to the idea of democratic elections in Iraq:

"Part of the reason the planning for post-Saddam Iraq was so nonexistent was that the State Department had been saying if you invade, you have to plan for the postwar. And DOD said, no you don't. You can set up a provisional government in exile around Chalabi. DOD had a stupid plan, but they had a plan. But if you don't do that plan, and you don't make the Pentagon work with State to develop something else, then you go to war with no plan."


Anyone wanting to answer the question of "how we began" in Iraq has to confront the monumental fact that the United States, the most powerful country in the world, invaded Iraq with no particular and specific idea of what it was going to do there, and then must try to explain how this could have happened. In his account Woodward resists the lure of Chalabi but not the temptation of melodrama, instead choosing, with typically impeccable political timing, to place Donald Rumsfeld in the role of mustache-twirling villain, a choice that most of the country, in the wake of the elections and the secretary's instant fall from power, seems happy to embrace. And the secretary, truculent, arrogant, vain, has shown himself perfectly willing to play his part in this familiar Washington morality tale, setting himself up for the predictable fall by spending hours at the podium before fawning reporters and their television cameras during and after the invasion.

The Fall of Rumsfeld gives pace and drive to Woodward's narrative. No doubt this will please readers, who find themselves increasingly outraged at the almost unbelievable failures in planning and execution, rewarding them with a bracing wave of schadenfreude when the inevitable defenestration finally takes place -- outside the frame of the book but wholly predictable from its storyline. Indeed, the fact of "State of Denial's" publication a month before the election, complete with the usual national television interviews and other attendant publicity, was not the least of the signs that the knives were out and glinting and that the secretary's days were numbered.

Irresistible as Rumsfeld is, however, the story of the Iraq war disaster springs less from his brow than from that of an inexperienced and rigidly self-assured president who managed to fashion, with the help of a powerful vice-president, a strikingly disfigured process of governing. Woodward, much more interested in character and personal rivalry than government bureaus and hierarchies, refers to this process broadly as "the interagency," as in "Rice said the interagency was broken." He means the governing apparatus set up by the National Security Act of 1947, which gathered the government's major security officials -- secretaries of state, defense, and treasury, attorney general, director of national intelligence, among others -- into the National Security Council, and gave to the president a special assistant for national security affairs (commonly known as the national security adviser) and a staff to manage, coordinate, and control it. Through the national security council and the "deputies committee" and other subsidiary bodies linking the various government departments at lower levels, information and policy guidance are supposed to work their way up from bureaucracy to president, and his decisions to work their way down. Ron Suskind, who has been closely studying the inner workings of the Bush administration since his revealing piece about Karl Rove and John DiIulio in 2003 and his book on Paul O'Neill the following year, observes that "the interagency" not only serves to convey information and decisions but also is intended to perform a more basic function:

"Sober due diligence, with an eye for the way previous administrations have thought through a standard array of challenges facing the United States, creates, in fact, a kind of check on executive power and prerogative."

This is precisely what the President didn't want, particularly after September 11; deeply distrustful of the bureaucracy, desirous of quick, decisive action, impatient with bureaucrats and policy intellectuals, the President wanted to act. Suskind writes:

"For George W. Bush, there had been an evolution on such matters -- from the early, pre-9/11 President, who had little grasp of foreign affairs and made few major decisions in that realm; to the post- 9/11 President, who met America's foreign challenges with decisiveness born of a brand of preternatural, faith-based, self-generated certainty. The policy process, in fact, never changed much. Issues argued, often vociferously, at the level of deputies and principals rarely seemed to go upstream in their fullest form to the President's desk; and, if they did, it was often after Bush seemed to have already made up his mind based on what was so often cited as his 'instinct' or 'gut.'"

Woodward tends to blame "the broken policy process" on the relative strength of personalities gathered around the cabinet table: the power and ruthlessness of Rumsfeld, the legendary "bureaucratic infighter"; the weakness of Rice, the very function and purpose of whose job, to let the President both benefit from and control the bureaucracy, was in effect eviscerated. Suskind, more convincingly, argues that Bush and Cheney constructed precisely the government they wanted: centralized, highly secretive, its clean, direct lines of decision unencumbered by information or consultation. "There was never any policy process to break, by Condi or anyone else," Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, remarks to Suskind. "There was never one from the start. Bush didn't want one, for whatever reason." Suskind suggests why in an acute analysis of personality and leadership:

"Of the many reasons the President moved in this direction, the most telling may stem from George Bush's belief in his own certainty and, especially after 9/11, his need to protect the capacity to will such certainty in the face of daunting complexity. His view of right and wrong, and of righteous actions -- such as attacking evil or spreading "God's gift" of democracy -- were undercut by the kind of traditional, shades-of-gray analysis that has been a staple of most presidents' diets. This President's traditional day began with Bible reading at dawn, a workout, breakfast, and the briefings of foreign and domestic threats ... The hard, complex analysis, in this model, would often be a thin offering, passed through the filters of Cheney or Rice, or not presented at all.

"... This granted certain unique advantages to Bush. With fewer people privy to actual decisions, tighter confidentiality could be preserved, reducing leaks. Swift decisions -- either preempting detailed deliberation or ignoring it could move immediately to implementation, speeding the pace of execution and emphasizing the hows rather than the more complex whys. What Bush knew before, or during, a key decision remained largely a mystery. Only a tiny group -- Cheney, Rice, Card, Rove, Tenet, Rumsfeld -- could break this seal."

To the rest of the government, of course, this "mystery" must have been excruciating to endure; Suskind describes how many of those in the "foreign policy establishment" found themselves "befuddled" by the way the traditional policy process was viewed not only as unproductive but "perilous." Information, that is, could slow decision-making; indeed, when it had to do with a bold and risky venture like the Iraq war, information and discussion -- an airing, say, of the precise obstacles facing a "democratic transition" conducted with a handful of troops -- could paralyze it. If the sober consideration of history and facts stood in the way of bold action then it would be the history and the facts that would be discarded. The risk of doing nothing, the risk, that is, of the status quo, justified acting. Given the grim facts on the ground -- the likelihood of a future terrorist attack from the "malignant" Middle East, the impossibility of entirely protecting the country from it -- better to embrace the unknown. Better, that is, to act in the cause of "constructive instability" -- a wonderfully evocative phrase, which, as Suskind writes,

"was the term used by various senior officials in regard to Iraq -- a term with roots in pre-9/11 ideas among neoconservatives about the need for a new, muscular, unbounded American posture; and outgrowths that swiftly took shape after the attacks made everything prior to 9/11 easily relegated to dusty history.

"The past -- along with old-style deliberations based on cause and effect or on agreed-upon precedents -- didn't much matter; nor did those with knowledge and prevailing policy studies, of agreements between nations, or of long-standing arrangements defining the global landscape. What mattered, by default, was the President's 'instinct' to guide America across the fresh, post-9/11 terrain -- a style of leadership that could be rendered within tiny, confidential circles. America, unbound, was duly led by a President, unbound."

It is that "duly led," of course, that is the question. Information, history, and all the other attributes of a deliberative policy may inhibit action but they do so by weighing and calculating risk. Dispensing with them has no consequences only if you accept the proposition that the Iraq war so clearly disproves: that bold action must always make us safer.

This article originally appeared on

By Mark Danner

Mark Danner is the author, most recently, of "Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror" (2004) and "The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War's Buried History" (2007). He has covered the Iraq war from its beginning for the New York Review of Books. He teaches at both Bard College and the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His work is archived at

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